Making memories: Local chefs and makers share holiday traditions and recipes 

Photo: Morgan Salyer Photo: Morgan Salyer

Year after year, traditions are often what lead us through the holiday season. They mark everything from the place settings—a favorite heirloom tablecloth or a fine china set that has been passed down over the years—to the meal itself, from pie recipes scribbled in old family cookbooks to a particular way of carving the meat. We asked some local chefs, restaurant owners, and producers to share their own holiday memories—and a few cherished recipes.

In praise of eggnog

Scott Smith, co-owner of Bodo’s Bagels

Between Thanksgiving  and Christmas, besides the stuff we all do during the holidays, I celebrate six close family birthdays and my anniversary. It’s a gauntlet of occasions run too close together to savor (the whole reason to celebrate), and Christmas is the finish line. I cross it exhausted, grateful, and relieved.

A few years ago, about halfway through, I read a piece about Charles Mingus’ secret and legendary eggnog recipe, which he left to his biographer, Janet Coleman. It’s everything you’d want his recipe to be: prodigious, improvisatory, excessive, and sweetly easy to overindulge in before you know how far in over your head you’re getting.

The article described it as a velvet-gloved gorilla.

It seemed the perfect way to celebrate the crescendo of the year’s celebrations and obligations, and I’ve made it and shared it every Christmas afternoon since.

Photo: Morgan Salyer

Fine kettle of fish

Matthew Brown, wine director at King Family Vineyards

Being from an Italian-American family, food holds a special place in our lives the whole year, however there is no doubt that we really turn up the heat around the holidays. Inspired by the classic feast of the seven fishes, traditionally enjoyed on Christmas Eve by Italian Catholics, my family gathers every year for a much simpler take on this tradition: shrimp scampi and linguine. Like most good home-cooked meals, there is no recipe.

The ingredients are simple: fresh shrimp, lots of garlic, lots of butter, and lots of lemon. The secret is to share a bottle (or two) of Champagne while cooking the meal. Once finished, the dish is best served with homemade linguine and topped with plenty of freshly grated Pecorino Romano. We always enjoy white Burgundy or aged Virginia chardonnay with our meal and then finish up with a generous splash of old vintage Madeira. The people at our Christmas Eve table change every year, but the meal is always the same!

That’s the stuff(ing)

Jason Becton, co-owner of MarieBette Café & Bakery

Photo: Keith Alan Sprouse

My grandmother was an excellent baker and a really solid cook. When I was a kid, she would make all of the food on Thanksgiving start to finish and we kids would help her prep. The centerpiece of the whole shebang was, of course, the turkey. Ours was usually a Butterball with a simple bread stuffing. Every year it was predictably the same.

When my grandmother passed away, my mother, who had always been intimidated by making the turkey, passed the responsibility on to me. I tinkered with the roasting process, the brine, the bird itself, and the gravy, but one thing that was sacrilege was to change the stuffing.

I don’t know very many people who actually cook the stuffing in the bird. There are lots of folks who think it’s not safe, it makes the bird dry, or is just completely a pain in the butt to do. I agree with the last part but the stuffing made with six ingredients—breadcrumbs, butter, eggs, onions, salt, and  pepper—is remarkably tasty and never makes the meat dry. In fact, I’m proud to say that my simple roasted turkey has turned many turkey haters into believers.

Photo: Tim Gearhart

Go with the dough

Tim Gearhart, owner of Gearharts Fine Chocolates

One of my favorite treats as a kid was something amazingly simple. As a lot of food memories can often be, it of course goes deeper than its basic four ingredients: pie crust, cinnamon, butter, and sugar. It evokes childhood, holidays, and family to me. As I look back, it also helped start a lifelong passion.

My mom would set out to make maybe a pecan or pumpkin pie for Christmas dinner, but all I could think about was the buttery and flaky cookies she would make with the leftover dough. They were perfect—just simply rolled out bits and pieces of dough, slathered with butter, and finished with a generous coat of cinnamon sugar. She would then roll it up, slice and bake until a light brown. I waited and waited, watching the sugar bubbling up as it caramelized. Without a doubt, I was more excited about these cookies than whatever the main attraction was going to be!

I think in the end, whether it’s a 15-course gourmet meal or a cookie made with leftovers, it’s about making something special for someone.  And sometimes, four ingredients are just enough.

Magic in a Mason jar

Hunter Smith, owner of Champion Brewing Company

Photo: Amy and Jackson Smith

Many years ago, long before I knew of the relaxing and invigorating effects of alcohol, I took notice of a particular seasonal increase in neighborly traffic to my childhood home’s kitchen door. Many came bearing their own holiday treats, such as Pat’s sweet, soft sourdough bread, or the other Pat’s delicious monkey bread that we always ate, through Herculean restraint, before opening presents on Christmas morning. The majority of these seasonal visitors, however, came wide-eyed in pursuit of their Mason jar of The Recipe.

Despite plenty of annual light-hearted—and dead serious—offers to pay for The Recipe, my mom was as stern a gatekeeper as ever. The Recipe is of old Albemarle County origin, passed to my mom by family friend, grandmother figure, and legend in my memory, Marty, whose home we always visit in Earlysville. When I returned from college in Boston one Christmas and we all gathered around the tree, I found myself teary when opening a boxed Pyrex set that included a lined index card detailing the legendary Recipe, written in cursive in my mom’s signature blue ink. My fiancée at the time, Danielle (now my wife of 10 years), and I reveled in the opportunity to take a stab at making our own at home, with no limit on our allocation from mom.

The stuff itself is so rich and intense that you always find yourself amazed by how quickly and smoothly it goes down—and even a stout, seasoned drinker like myself can be taken unawares by the empty glass and light-headed sensation. The Recipe itself? A combination of sugar, eggs, cream, and heaps of dark spirits that aren’t bourbon—and that’s surely as far as I can go without facing excommunication. Served cool in a pewter Jefferson Cup, a traditional gift in our family, it’s a perfect fireside sip or Christmas morning fuel for tolerating all of the new family traditions—like noisy electronic toys, iPads, and Disney Blu-Rays for this era of Smiths. We’ve always joked in our family of booze producers that it would be legendary to take this magic in a bottle to market—but that would defeat the purpose of the special treat we know as The Recipe.

Photo: Morgan Salyer

Breaking with tradition

Courtenay Tyler, co-owner of Tilman’s

When I was living in Chicago, I worked at a small mom-and-pop neighborhood butcher and grocery store, a lot like the ones we have here in Virginia, where we made family-style food. Our Thanksgiving dinners were hugely popular, and each year I roasted over 25 turkeys, and made all the traditional sides to go with them. We were open until noon on Thanksgiving day for neighborhood customers to come and pick up their dinners. It made for a very long week, and by the end of it, I hate to say it, I was sick of Thanksgiving and couldn’t even look at turkey.

One year, I had already invited a group of friends over for Thanksgiving, but I couldn’t bring myself to cook another turkey. I had to come up with Plan B. So I took a look at our meat counter, spied a bone-in pork roast, and knew what our dinner would be. I had the butcher tie up a massive crown roast of pork. It was glorious.

As a nod to the Thanksgiving that I knew my friends were expecting, I stuffed it with caramelized onion and apple stuffing. That year, a tradition was born. I’m a huge fan of Friendsgiving, and we never have turkey. But we do a wink and nod to the traditional sides.

Photo: Tom McGovern

Lefse with Lila

Kate Hamilton, co-owner of Hamiltons’ at First & Main

My grandmothers were both of Scandinavian heritage. My mother’s mother, Lila, was Norwegian-American, dad’s mother, Garnett, was Danish-American. Food traditions ran strong with them, and I treasure their recipe boxes and hand-sewn aprons. My grandmothers instilled in me a love of baking that still binds the generations together each Christmas. I may know their recipes by heart, but reading them is half the fun. Smudges and spills. Notes in the margins. “Take butter the size of an egg and cream in small bowl with sugar,” or “Lard is the secret for flaky rolls,” in Lila’s small, loopy writing. “Calls for oleo-—sub. butter when avail,” in Garnett’s spiky script.

Lefse is a Norwegian flatbread made primarily of potatoes, and was a staple in Lila’s Christmas kitchen. Hot from the griddle, slathered with butter and a bit of jam or cinnamon sugar, then rolled up like a crepe, it is among my favorite taste memories from childhood.

Every Norse family swears by its lefse recipe and I’ve tried many of them. I’ve used russet potatoes and the wrong potatoes. I’ve mashed them and I’ve riced them. I’ve even tried instant potato flakes. But when making lefse with Lila, we simply used up the extra mashed potatoes from the previous night’s supper. These were boiled russets, mashed with warm milk and butter, then lightly seasoned with salt. In the morning, we’d knead flour and a little sugar into the chilled leftovers, put the sock on the rolling pin and roll the dough balls into circles. Then we’d cook them on a dry pancake griddle one at a time, using a flat spatula to flip them when the desired brown spots appeared. We had a stack of damp tea towels nearby and layered the lefse and towels on a platter until meal or snack time. A simple but delicious treat and memory.

Photo: Morgan Salyer

The slice is right

Angelo Vangelopoulos, chef and owner of The Ivy Inn

My favorite family holiday tradition is my dad’s homemade pita with a coin hidden inside served on New Year’s Day. Some years it’s made with spinach and feta (aka “spanako” pita), and other years it’s made with ground pork and pine nuts and brushed with lard.

We eat it for lunch after we’ve placed it in the middle of the table, spun it around a few times, sang a holiday song or two, and my dad has offered a blessing in Greek. Our savory pita “pie” is then cut into pieces for everyone present, and extra pieces are designated for any missing family members who couldn’t attend. We then dig in, and eat the pita while carefully making sure we don’t swallow the coin inside. There are annual jokes about whether or not my dad remembered to put the coin in (yes, that happened once), and plenty of arguing over which piece is which. I can hear family members saying, “Once it’s on your plate, it’s YOURS!”

The “winner” is the family member whose piece contains the coin. The coin is said to give a year of health and wealth, and it’s considered bad luck to ever spend it. This celebration is rooted in Christianity in celebration of St. Basil, who died on January 1. It’s a similar concept to King Cake, just without the baby inside, because that’s just weird!

RECIPES:

Caramelized onion, apple, and sage stuffing

from Courtenay Tyler of Tilman’s

Ingredients:

1 loaf of crusty day-old bread. Any will do, but I use a French country loaf, roughly cut into small 1-inch cubes. Note: I like to cube and leave these overnight to stale for best texture, but you can also speed the process by drying them out in a low oven, set to 250 for about 30 minutes, if you did not plan ahead.

2 onions, diced

3 Tbs. olive oil, divided

Salt and pepper to taste

2 apples, peeled and diced

2 ribs of celery, minced

Fresh sage, about ½ bunch or tbsp., chopped

1 large egg, lightly beaten

3 cups chicken broth

Instructions:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a baking pan. In a large skillet, sauté the onions, salt and pepper in about two tablespoons of olive oil until browned and caramelized. This takes patience, and frequent stirring. Give yourself 15-20 minutes to get to the proper golden brown color. Once golden brown and caramelized, remove the onion to a large mixing bowl. Add one tablespoon of olive oil to your skillet and sauté the celery, diced apple, and fresh sage. Once soft, remove and add to the mixing bowl with the onions. Stir to combine.

Add your cubed bread, beaten egg, and broth. Stir to combine. Bake for 50 minutes to an hour, until the top is lightly browned.


Lefse

from Kate Hamilton of Hamiltons’ at First & Main

Equipment needed:

Potato ricer or food mill

Flat pancake griddle or electric lefse griddle

Rolling pin or grooved lefse roller

Wooden spatula or lease stick

Damp towels

Ingredients:

6 large russet potatoes of similar size

3/4 cup melted salted butter

1-2 Tbs. cream

2 tsp. salt                                                                                                                       

3 Tbs. sugar

4-5 cups all-purpose flour

Instructions:

Peel, halve, and gently boil potatoes until centers are fork tender. Drain water and briefly replace pot on the stove to let some steam off. Push the hot potatoes through a ricer into a mixing bowl—you should have about eight cups of riced potatoes. While still hot, stir in the melted butter, salt, and sugar. Spread the mixture on a baking sheet and allow to cool, then shape it into a ball and refrigerate, covered, overnight.

The next day, preheat your griddle to 400-500 degrees. Because you want to add the flour right before baking, you should work with half of the riced potato mixture at a time, keeping the rest chilled in the fridge.

Place half the riced potato mixture in a bowl, add about two cups of flour, and mix in well using a stand mixer or your hands. If dough is sticky, add a bit more flour. If dough is too tough, work in a tablespoon of cream. Divide the dough into golf ball sized balls and keep in the refrigerator, removing one at a time to roll out and bake.

Dust your rolling pin and rolling surface with flour, then roll the lefse dough ball into a circle as thin as you can without it tearing. Using the wooden spatula or lefse stick, transfer to the hot, dry griddle and cook until light brown speckles appear, then flip. Bake until larger brown spots appear, then place on platter and cover with a damp towel. Continue in that way, layering lefse and damp towels until you’ve used up the first half of the dough, then repeat the process with the remainder of the refrigerated riced potato mixture.

A cooking partner will make the work go faster—one of you rolling and one of you baking. This recipe makes about 16 lefse.

Lefse is traditionally eaten rolled up with butter and jam or cinnamon sugar at Christmas. It’s also delicious with savory fillings. Enjoy!


Charles Mingus’ eggnog (in his words)

a favorite of Scott Smith of Bodo’s

Separate one egg for one person. Each person gets an egg.

Two sugars for each egg, each person.

One shot of rum, one shot of brandy per person.

Put all the yolks into one big pan, with some milk.

That’s where the 151 proof rum goes. Put it in gradually or it’ll burn the eggs, okay. The whites are separate and the cream is separate.

In another pot—depending on how many people—put in one shot of each, rum and brandy. (This is after you whip your whites and your cream.) Pour it over the top of the milk and yolks.

One teaspoon of sugar. Brandy and rum. Actually you mix it all together.

Yes, a lot of nutmeg. Fresh nutmeg. And stir it up.

You don’t need ice cream unless you’ve got people coming and you need to keep it cold. Vanilla ice cream. You can use eggnog. I use vanilla ice cream.

Right, taste for flavor. Bourbon? I use Jamaica rum in there. Jamaican rums. Or I’ll put rye in it. Scotch. It depends. See, it depends on how drunk I get while I’m tasting it.

Notes from Smith on making the Mingus his own way:

After a year or two, I settled into a process. I beat the egg yolks with the sugar (one teaspoon per egg) in a stand mixer, like Alton Brown. Leaning on his recipe, I put a couple of cups of whole milk and a cup of heavy cream or so (for four people) into a saucepan with a lot of fresh nutmeg and bring it just to a boil, whisking. I take it off the heat and slowly whisk it into the eggs and sugar before putting it all back in the saucepan. Before it goes back on the burner, I clean the mixing bowl and beat the whites into stiff peaks so they’re ready. I set them aside and cook the mixture, whisking over medium heat, until it reaches 160 degrees (thanks Alton). As it’s coming up to temperature, I add the 151. I pull it from the heat and add the brandy and some dark rum (one shot each, per person). Then I put in a pint (I have another on hand in case) of softened Ben & Jerry’s vanilla ice cream. It melts in and cools things down before I fold in the whites. Looking good? If it’s pretty and sweet, no more ice cream. Taste, like Mingus. I’ve never not added bourbon. Sometimes I add some Scotch. I’ve used Irish whiskey too. This is the fun part. I don’t measure these, just use them to adjust the flavor.

It should have a dessert taste with a kick that doesn’t begin to telegraph the absurd amount of alcohol in each glass. Use small glasses. Settle in. Mingus, the article said, also used to fire his shotgun in his apartment, so go easy.

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